The valley of the Avon is no less lovely now than it was in 1826, when William Cobbett rode the length of it. ‘Great as my expectations had been they were more than fulfilled..’ he wrote in Rural Rides, ‘ I delight in this sort of country; and I had frequently seen the vale of the Itchen, that of the Bourne, and also that of the Test, in Hampshire; I had seen the vales amongst the South Downs; but I never before saw any thing to please me like this valley of the Avon … endless is the variety in the shape of the high lands which form the valley. Sometimes the slope is very gentle, and the arable lands go very far back. At others the downs come out into the valley almost like piers into the sea, being very steep in their sides, as well as their ends towards the valley … the land appears all to be of the very best; indeed the farmers confess it.’
Waving lines of pollarded willows and small straggling villages hug the river. The road Cobbett took meanders through West Amesbury, past silver chalk stone and flint chequered houses, past Wilsford Manor, where the artist Stephen Tennant lived out his enchanted life and ended up as Miss Havisham, past the fat bastions of yew in the village of Lake and its tall, glorious gabled manor – Sting’s private domain, high-hedged, high-walled, impenetrable: England evolving as it has always done, new money restoring the ramshackle houses built with old money – and always the downs undulating behind and melting into more downs where barrows abound and Stonehenge crowns the skyline.
Heale House, for all the world a perfect late-17th-century house, was in fact restored after a fire and aggrandised by its new owner Louis Greville at the turn of the last century. He employed the gifted Arts and Crafts architect Detmar Blow to restore the house, and the garden designer Harold Peto to make the most of this gentle slope of ground within a lazy loop of the trout-filled Avon. He planted yew hedges and laid down stone terraces, balustrades and wide, shallow steps, now lichen- and moss-encrusted. Artful additions, elaborations and new plantings by subsequent generations have rendered Heale Gardens a magic place, worth dipping into every time you pass. It is just the right scale, a garden in which you feel happy alone. For the most part it is the proverbial comforting English idyll – tunnels of apple trees through the walled vegetable garden, musk roses against faded red brick – but there is also a Japanese garden with an islanded tea house painted scarlet. It stands over a channel dug in 1690 as part of the new water meadow irrigation system designed by Dutch engineers. The system still works and is in use at Court Farm, two miles down the valley.
Even in Winter there are beautiful plants and shrubs in bloom – witch hazels, hellebores, mahonia, winter jasmine and honeysuckle – but best of all, on a walk which they call ‘the cut’, a winding incline unfurls to the water meadows and reveals sheets of snowdrops and aconites on its high banks.
Between Upper and Middle Woodford the water meadows widen, the downs to the west gain grandeur and a chalk track ribbons away to an earthwork on their horizon. Opposite, a young lime avenue leads away across a sheep-strewn field, and there below, hidden until you are almost upon it, stands a red brick and stone-dressed manor house beside the river, surrounded by the most entrancing gardens imaginable.